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TECH NATION: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi joined CEO Eric Schmidt at Google Monday.

Disrupt the Vote

Nancy Pelosi talks tech in Mountain View

By Eric Johnson

AT Google headquarters, as elsewhere in Silicon Valley, the term "disrupter" is commonly used to describe technological innovations or companies that force evolution. Nancy Pelosi found a novel way to repurpose the word during a visit to the search-engine giant's Mountain View campus Monday.

"Our founders were disrupters," Pelosi said. "They disrupted the status quo."

The Speaker of the House was not talking about Sergey Brin and Larry Page, but about Jefferson, Franklin, et al. But she quickly segued into a brief comment about the men who built Google and their legacy, crediting the Googlers and their allies with "taking us to new places." Again, she was talking politics, not technology or commerce.

"No one has done more to strengthen our democracy," she said, "by organizing information to empower the individual." That has been the important work of Silicon Valley, she said: disrupting the status quo "in a positive and magnificent way." She described that work as a continuation of the "traditional American" project.

Pelosi was in Mountain View for a public chat with CEO Eric Schmidt in a forum with Google employees—a regular feature at the campus. The setting was one of Google's famous free-food cafeterias, a room that has hosted powerful folks from Hillary Clinton to John McCain in recent months.

The subject was supposed to be the "Innovation Agenda," a package of bills co-sponsored by Pelosi, along with fellow U.S. Reps. Anna Eshoo, Zoe Lofgren and George Miller. As it happened, the 90-minute conversation with the Speaker covered a lot of ground, from the crisis on Wall Street to the war in Iraq. But the talk centered around national issues of particular interest to locals.

"There are four words to describe the Democrats' domestic agenda," Pelosi said. "Science, science, science and science."

Eric Schmidt interrupted her, expressing what looked like amazed delight. "The Speaker of the House, talking about science!"

"In Washington," Pelosi responded, "one must choose: science or faith. Take your pick."

"Science," she concluded, "is the answer to our prayers."

Schmidt's first question was whether the lame-duck Congress would return to D.C. following the election, and what Pelosi hoped to accomplish.

"Well, I called the president," Pelosi began, and Schmidt again interrupted her. "You mean—on the telephone?" Pelosi, the most powerful woman in the nation, third in line to the president under U.S. law, merely nodded. "And I told him, 'I'm willing to bring Congress back, but only if you behave ... rationally.'"

Everyone laughed, but I'm sure nobody in the room believed her. She went on to describe how she'd worked with Fed chairman Ben Bernanke on a plan for a new economic stimulus package. "We had hoped to put it in place in January," she said. "But I don't think we can wait that long."

A highlight of the event came in response to Schmidt's next question, about the details of the economic rescue plan that Pelosi helped orchestrate a few weeks ago. The Speaker responded with the kind of behind-the-scenes, inside-baseball story that one rarely hears outside Georgetown cocktail parties.

It began with a late-afternoon phone call to Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and ended with the government pledging $700 billion to keep the national economy from tanking.

At one point, she said, Bernanke made everyone in a meeting of congressional leaders very unhappy.

"Ben, who is an expert on the Great Depression, informed us that if we did not act immediately, there might not be an economy on Monday."

Sen. Harry Reed, who was also at the meeting, asked one question repeatedly: "How much is it going to cost?" The two money men were unable to give an answer. The way Pelosi tells it, the members of Congress had to prompt the government's top bankers. "$200 billion? No. $300 billion? No. $400 billion? And Hank says, 'You're getting warmer.' And I thought, 'Am I playing with my grandchildren here?'"

Amid the ensuing laughter, Pelosi turned to the gathered Googlers and asked: "Doesn't this restore your confidence in government?" And she indulged in a bit of campaigning: "Vote on November 4th!"

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